Before White Yoga Pants, the Star of Kotex Ads Was World War I

In Depth

At this point, ads for [adjusts bifocals, clears throat] “feminine products” are so cliche that Always has broken down and started doing Dove-style empowerment marketing in the hopes of standing out. How many ways can you market tampons and pads, which are pretty much all the same shit anyway?

But it hasn’t always been chill party girls carrying tiny clutches and smiling, jogging athletes. When Kotex introduced the first modern sanitary napkins in the early 1920s, they piggybacked off some recent world events. Namely, the Great War, the war to end all wars, World War I itself.

Here’s how Kotex pitched its pads in a January 1921 edition of Ladies’ Home Journal. Via Hathitrust, the Museum of Menstruation says this was the first-ever Kotex advertisement:

What’s with the convalescent man, you ask? What does this have to do with that time of the month? Well, the ad explains:

“New but tried and proved, Kotex enters universal service from a romantic background. For, although a women’s article, it started as Cellucotton—a wonderful sanitary absorbent which science perfected for use of our men and allied soldiers wounded in France. With peace came an idea suggested in letters from nurses in France, regarding a new use for this wonderful absorbent, and early in 1919 our laboratory made the first sanitary pads of Cellucotton enclosed in gauze and placed them on sale in various cities.”

Kotex: From the bloody trenches of the Western front to the bloody trenches of your vagina.

Nor was this an isolated advertisement! Here is another full-page ad from March, same magazine and year:

This time the accompanying text reads:

“Necessity being the mother of invention, our war nurses in France first discovered a new use for Cellucotton, which has led to Kotex—a universal product at a universal price. ‘Cellucotton,’ they wrote, ‘is doing such wonderful work as a sanitary absorbent that nurses are making sanitary pads from it for their own uses.'” Thus when the war ended, our laboratory developed the nurses’ idea. For over two years experiments went on in preparing and also in marketing the new sanitary pads known as KOTEX—named from ‘cotton-like texture’—with the result that Kotex are now offered at a price every woman can afford in stores and shops that cater to women. Kotex are more absorbent, cool, of lasting softness, cheap enough to throw away.”

Take a moment to consider how miserable whatever women were using before must’ve been, if “cool” is one of their selling points. Imagine the chafing.

Surprising (and slightly gimmicky) though it may seem, this claim appears to be true. Kotex says on their website that Kimberly-Clark developed a cellulose wadding for wartime use, then realized they had something with a peacetime application on their hands. Bonus: This approach allowed them to invoke sanitation and cleanliness and modern medicine, which was of course all the rage in advertising at the time.

But they did quickly transition into less martial advertising. From May 1921; for “Ask for them by name,” read, “Say ‘Kotex’ so you don’t have to say ‘menstruation.'” Though you’ll notice this ad does still mention the war, and note the reference to “the size of our mills, built on a war emergency basis” which allow a lower price:

Did they stress that it’s not just for combat nurses anymore? It’s not just for women on the go, ministering to men stricken by mustard gas attacks and dodging the advances of Ernest Hemingway. It’s for ladies of leisure who want to menstruate in the comfort and privacy of their own luxurious homes, as well. Swan down the stairs in your finest silk kimono, confident you are 100% dainty:

Best of all? You needn’t be scared of your laundress anymore. Thanks, World War I!

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